On the eve of the signing of a peace treaty that ostensibly will lead to their autonomy, the 15,000 residents of this Judean farming town remained under virtual round-the-clock house confinement today as a curfew imposed following recent disturbances entered its 11th day.
Telephone communications to the town have been severed and Israeli Army patrols continue to bar access to the home of Mayor Mohammed Milham, who townspeople say is being held incommunicado to prevent news of the confinement from spreading throughout the West Bank and elsewhere.
The curfew, imposed after Israeli soldiers and Jewish civilian settlers opened fire on rock-throwing youths March 15 during a protest against President Carter's visit to Jerusalem, may continue until the end of the week, Israeli occupation authorities said.
Two Palestinian youths, including a 17-year-old girl student, were killed in the shooting.
Halhul, north of Hebron on the main highway to Bethlehem, has been the scene of numerous disturbances in opposition to the Camp David peace agreements, including rock throwing at passing cars. A similar curfew was imposed, and schools were closed, immediately after the signing of the original Camp David accords last September.
Israeli Army officials say the curfew is necessary to prevent further outbreaks of violence and interruption of traffic on the key artery between Jerusalem and Hebron.
Military occupation authorities today refused to grant permission to reporters to enter the town to talk with the residents. But during an unauthorized visit I heard complaints from townspeople that for 11 days and nights they have been confined inside their homes, except for daily outings of one hour.
"I never heard of any occupation like this, in Germany or anywhere else in the world. These circumstances cannot be accepted by anyone," said a Halhul Palestinian who did not want to be identified.
Although several residents claimed there were no exceptions to the curfew, including farmers who had asked for permission to tend to their crops, several men could be seen spraying vineyards in preparation for the summer grape season.
Except for them and an occasional resident seen talking with Israeli soldiers, there was no evidence of life here during the late afternoon. Shops and produce stalls were shuttered and blinds were drawn on many houses.
Similarly, army security forces were keeping a low profile, patrolling some residential sections in twos and fours, but presenting no show of force, giving the town a deserted appearance.
Residents said they have been allowed to leave their homes for an hour each day since March 15, with the time being changed each day. The free period is to allow the residents to ship for food and other essential needs, they said.
An Arab resident who teaches school in nearby Hebron said that he and other jobholders have been unable to go to work since the curfew began. But the greatest irritant to many residents is that word of their confinement has not been spread because of what they termed a news blackout on the town.
An American and a British reporter who drove into the town today were turned away from a side street leading to Miham's home and told they could not visit the mayor.
"You cannot see him. Turn back," an Israeli soldier said.
Automobiles are allowed to pass through Halhul on their way to Hebron or Beersheba, but are not supposed to detour into residential areas of the town. An Israeli military spokesman said that "journalists, especially" could not enter the town because on other occasions the presence of television camera crews has worsened tensions.
When asked why reporters without cameras could not enter Halhul to talk with the mayor and other residents, the army spokesman said: "We cannot make a distinction. The orders are very strict."
Elsewhere in the West Bank, tensions have remained high following the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty breakthrough. Israeli security forces have been placed on full alert following a bomb explosion yesterday that killed one person and injured 13 in downtown Jerusalem's Zion Square.
For the past two days Palestinians have demonstrated in the Old City at the Temple Mount, sacred to Jews and Moslems.
Following rumors that Rabbi Meir Kahane and his ultranationalist followers planned to pray at Al Asqa Mosque, which after Mecca and Medina is Islam's third most sacred shrine, about 2,000 Palestinian youths took over the Temple Mount yesterday and prevented Jews from entering.
Some carried wooden staves and rocks, but police sealed the entrances until they dispersed.
About 50 Palestinian youths were detained after they threw rocks from the Old City walls at a group of Yeshiva students walking to Lion's Gate. Another demonstration, including hundreds of Palestinian women, was held at the Temple Mount today, but no serious clashes were reported.